Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles On December 12, 1904, Chief Lontulu laid 110 twigs in front of a foreign commission. Every twig represented a person in his village who died because of King Leopold's horrific regime in the Congo— all in the name of rubber. Chief Lontulu separated the twigs into four piles: tribal nobles, men, women, and children— then proceeded to name the dead of one-by-one. His testimony joined hundreds of others to help bring an end to one of the greatest atrocities in history. Beginning in the late 1800s, European countries participated in the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” They colonized 90% of the continent, exploiting African resources and enriching their countries. Belgium had recently become an independent kingdom. Its ruler, Leopold II, wanted to acquire what he called “a slice of this magnificent African cake.” Meanwhile, he read colonial explorer Henry Morton Stanley's reports about traveling through Africa. Stanley emphasized the Congo basin's majesty. So, in 1879, Leopold contracted him to return to the Congo. There, Stanley deceived leaders into signing some 450 treaties allowing for land use. Leopold persuaded the US and European powers to grant him ownership of the Congo, pledging to protect free trade in the region. And on May 29, 1885, a territory more than 80 times the size of Belgium and home to 20 million people was declared his own private colony— by no one it actually belonged to. Leopold lost no time consolidating power in what he called the Congo Free State. He claimed land, raised an army, and forced many Congolese men to complete unpaid labor. Things got even worse when, in 1887, a Scottish inventor redeveloped the pneumatic tire, creating a massive international market for rubber. The Congo had one of the world's largest supplies. Leopold seized the opportunity, requiring villages to meet ever-greater rubber quotas. Congolese men had to harvest the material from wild vines. As supplies drained, they walked for days to gather enough. Leopold's army entered villages and held women and children hostage until the impossible quota was met. Soldiers sexually violated women and deprived children of food and water. Congolese people rebelled— they refused to cooperate, fought Leopold's soldiers, hid in the forests, and destroyed rubber vines. Leopold's army responded to resistance or failure to meet quotas with unflinching torture and executions. Because guns and ammunition were expensive, officers ordered soldiers to prove they used their bullets in the line of duty by removing a hand from anyone they killed. However, many soldiers hunted using their guns. To avoid harsh penalties and account for lost bullets, they cut off living people's hands. They also used this practice as punishment. If rubber quotas weren't meant, soldiers would sever people's hands and bring them to their commanders instead of rubber. The regime dramatically upended daily life and agriculture, causing widespread starvation and disease. Meanwhile, King Leopold built monuments and private estates with the wealth he extracted. Soon, people brought international attention to the horrific abuses of Leopold's Congo Free State. In 1890, American journalist George Washington Williams accused King Leopold of “deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding, and [a] general policy of cruelty.” In 1903, Diplomat Roger Casement wrote a report that corroborated the nature and scale of the atrocities. It was published the following year. In response, Leopold appointed his own commission to investigate the accusations. They heard numerous witness statements in the Congo— Chief Lontulu's included. The report only confirmed the worst. Facing pressure, Leopold relinquished control of the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908. But this did not mean justice. The Belgian state awarded Leopold 50 million francs “in testimony for his great sacrifice in favor of the Congo.” He died the following year. Crowds booed his funeral procession. For more than 50 years following, the Congo remained a Belgian colony, until declaring independence in 1960. That year, the Congo elected its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. But months later, he was unseated in a US and Belgium backed coup. In early 1961, Lumumba was assassinated under Belgian supervision. The coup launched the country into a decades-long dictatorship. Around 10 million Congolese people are thought to have died during Leopold's occupation and looting of the Congo. Despite this devastation, calls for reparations have gone unanswered. To this day, throughout Belgium can be found the monuments King Leopold built on a foundation of inconceivable cruelty.